Creating the Audiences of Tomorrow: TheaterWorksUSA’s Journey of Inspiring and Engaging Young Minds

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For over 60 years, TheaterWorksUSA (TWUSA) has carved its path as a leading creator of family entertainment, captivating young audiences with remarkable theatrical experiences. Their upcoming world premiere of “Cat Kid Comic Club the Musical,” based on Dav Pilkey’s best-selling book series, is a testament to their commitment to inspiring and engaging children and families. I had the privilege of conversing with Barbara Pasternack, the Artistic Director of TheaterWorks USA, and Michael Harrington, the Executive Director, gaining insights into their approach and the significance of their work.

A recent New York Times article covered the struggle of theaters around the country to get their audiences back after Covid; Barbara Pasternack emphasizes the importance of reaching young audiences, noting that theatergoing is not just a passion but a habit. “Hook young audiences on regular theatergoing when they are young, provide them with exceptional theater experiences, and you retain them for life,” she explains.

She believes that representation and inclusivity are crucial, stating, “It’s important for young audiences to see themselves and their stories represented on stage, and we keep this in mind when we cast our productions and when we look for underlying material to adapt.” Theater can play a crucial part in encouraging reflection and dialogue about social and cultural issues. It can inspire empathy and encourage audiences to reflect and challenge stereotypes.

Part of TWUSA’s success stems from creating productions that are based on popular books or series. From Junie B. Jones to Percy Jackson and Dog Man, making them instantly recognizable to young people and making them eager to see a beloved book come to life on stage. This helps young people fuel their imagination and creativity. When selecting books or authors for stage adaptations, Pasternack looks for stories that young people love and educators embrace. The criteria include smart storytelling, emotional resonance, inspiring characters, and issues that speak to the target audience.

Additionally, diversity and pure entertainment value play a role in the decision-making process. Once a book is chosen, securing the underlying rights is necessary before matching the writing team to the material.

 

Pasternack explains that future adaptations include Jason Reynolds’ ‘Long Way Down’ and ‘Stunt Boy.’ We are also adapting ‘Where the Mountain Meets the Moon’ by the fabulous Grace Lin. I’d love to adapt the series by Jory John, such as ‘The Good Egg,’ ‘The Smart Cookie,’ ‘The Bad Seed,’ etc.”

Beyond the performances themselves, TWUSA strives to engage young audiences with pre-show workshops and post-show discussions. According to Michael Harrington, “We dabbled in technology a bit during the height of the pandemic as a way to keep theatrical experiences present in our audiences’ lives. Our education team worked with many artists to create some fun and productive programs for families and educators—and now we’re still utilizing much of that content to extend and expand the context around the live experience.”

As theater continues to face challenges in attracting audiences, even in New York, TheaterWorksUSA has observed a different trend in its theater productions. Despite the overall industry still being in recovery mode, Michael Harrington explains, “We have been a bit surprised and appreciative of the enthusiasm of young and family audiences in NYC. They want to get back out there and have shared experiences, and we’re excited to deliver for them.” Center Theatre Group, which has faced its own struggles recently, has embraced what TWUSA offers by including ‘Dog Man The Musical’ in their upcoming season.  

As the landscape of live theater evolves, TWUSA remains committed to providing engaging and relevant experiences. Harrington shares, “We are always asking ourselves, ‘What’s next?’ How do we provide audiences with experiences that are engaging and relevant, but also undoubtedly theatrical?”

TWUSA’s mission to provide access to theater for all drives its touring efforts. Harrington explains, “TWUSA was built as a touring company. A core tenet of the company’s original mission was access—bringing theater to kids, families, schools, and communities that may not otherwise have that opportunity.”

For over six decades, TheaterWorksUSA has been an invaluable force in the country’s theatrical landscape, nurturing the dreams of aspiring artists and leaving an indelible mark on countless young audience members. Their impressive roster of alumni, including esteemed names such as Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, Bobby Lopez, Kristen Anderson Lopez, Jason Robert Brown, Douglas Lyons, Mindi Dickstein, Tina Landau, Nell Benjamin and Laurence O’Keefe, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Christopher Ashley, John Rando, Michael Mayer, Jerry Zaks, both Chuck and Eddie Cooper, Alex Timbers, F. Murray Abraham, Miguel Cervantes, Judy Kuhn, recent Tony nominee Kevin Del Aguila—so many more, stands as a testament to their role in shaping the careers of countless talents. Through their unwavering dedication, TheaterWorksUSA has not only given a head start to emerging artists but has also remained steadfast in its mission to cultivate a new generation of theatergoers.

 

As TheaterWorksUSA enters each new year, its unwavering commitment to the younger audiences remains resolute. By offering exceptional theatrical experiences, they have continuously inspired and engaged the minds of the youth, igniting a passion for the performing arts in countless hearts. With a forward-thinking approach that embraces diversity, inclusivity, and a keen focus on nurturing talent, TheaterWorksUSA paves the way for the future of theater. Their pioneering spirit in family entertainment and their relentless pursuit of creating audiences for tomorrow solidify their position as a beacon of creativity and innovation in the ever-evolving world of theater.

‘Cat Kid Comic Club The Musical,’ written by the award-winning team of Kevin Del Aguila (book and lyrics) and Brad Alexander (music), with direction and choreography by Marlo Hunter and musical direction by Paul Staroba and is based on the #1 bestselling Cat Kid Comic Club series by Dav Pilkey is currently playing in New York through the end of August 2023.

For more information about TheaterWorksUSA and ‘Cat Kid Comic Club The Musical,’ please visit www.TWUSA.org

 

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